Mulholland Drive is often listed as one of the strangest or most confusing films in the history of cinema. Part of that’s because it’s a relatively new release and therefore more people sitting online typing about film have seen Mulholland Drive. Just about any David Lynch production is going to have its share of mysteries, but there are reasons Mulholland Drive defies logic more than others.
Mulholland Drive: The TV Series
First, Mulholland Drive was filmed as a pilot for a tv series. The television pilot was going to present a whole string of intriguing mysteries and interesting plot points to titillate the ABC network executives. These execs asked David Lynch what was going to happen next (after seeing everything before the blue box scene) and he said, “Buy the pitch and find out” (paraphrase). When ABC decided not to give the green light, David Lynch decided to film everything after the blue box scene and turn this ongoing storyline into a feature film.
You can see how this seems like a project that was written in two parts. That’s how it was created. It’s almost like the project was dropped by one writing team and picked up by another group of writers sometime later. In this case, the change in writers may indicate a change in David Lynch’s moods.
Dream Movies and Mulholland Drive
Viewers also have to remember that Mulholland Drive is a dream film. Movies about dreams tend to have an abstract, surreal quality to them. Dreams and nightmares are abstracted and surrealist by their very nature, so David Lynch isn’t trodding on new territory in his handling of the subject. But there’s something more going on here.
Mulholland Drive Explained
This story isn’t just about the dreams and sexual fantasies of a dying woman, though. Mulholland Drive is an exploration of thought, emotion, experience, and memory–it’s about how these four facets of the brain interact and intermingle to form our identity. Mulholland Drive is an exploration of “identity” itself.
Think about that for a minute. How we think is affected by our emotions and our experiences. Our memory of the past is (also) affected by our emotions and experience, but this is a two-way street. Memories aren’t the same as experience. Our memory gets clouded. Our emotions often cloud our thoughts of the past. Dwell enough on bad thoughts and your memories warp–psychological scars appear from the strangest incidents. Small slights become terrible crimes, if you dwell on those slights enough. Yet some people ignore the worst injustices and live a happy life. So though can affect emotion and experience, too.
Put them all together and they become our self-identity, how we see ourselves. A person’s identity is a swirling tide of thoughts and emotions, experiences and memories. Much of the time identity is about how the world acts upon us, but also how we react to the world around us. But identity is also about how we think about ourselves.
Mulholland Drive and Fantasy
David Lynch takes us even deeper. Mulholland Drive isn’t about real experiences. It’s also about fantasies and how they help form our identities. Some part of every human being is that unspoken, introspective side that focuses on how we would like the world to be. These thoughts are often irrational, fantastical.
What if the person who spurned our love suddenly lost their memories and fell in love with us? That’s a perfectly irrational, fantastical thought, but David Lynch explores that idea. What’s more, he explores that idea by invoking classic Hollywood tropes. David Lynch mixes that thought with the Hollywood he grew up watching, making the first two-thirds of the movie a neo-noir mystery story. A woman loses her memory in a car crash, yet instinctively knows she was in physical danger at the moment of the crash. She happens across a naive young actress wannabe who’s just come to the big city looking for adventure and excitement. They fall in together and begin to solve a mystery…along with their mutual attraction.
In other hands, this might turn into an homage to Old Hollywood. Certainly, David Lynch gives a nod to several old films, but he uses Hollywood as a metaphor for fantasy itself. Remember, there’s no band. The illusionist in the theater makes that clear. Hollywood is about creating illusions–sometimes happy illusions and sometimes monstrous ones. Whether to scare, delight, or titillate, the film industry is about using song and images to lead a person down the path of “what if”.
That’s why the story of “Betty the Actress” works better than the story of “Betty the Waitress” would.
Betty’s Fantasy World
Think about the character of Betty (Naomi Watts). Betty is a bright-eyed, golden, and perky. That weird aunt and uncle of hers appear to be so elementally cheery that they’re alien-seeming. These are Diane’s happy images. This is the idyllic life she wishes she had. Instead, she’s a spent Hollywood figure in love with the wrong woman.
Think about the character of Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux). In Diane’s life, Adam is a wealthy and famous director and the successful rival for Camilla’s affection. In the first two-thirds of Mulholland Drive, Adam’s a noted director, but nothing else goes right. Adam’s forced to compromise to produce his movies. He’s pushed around by dark forces greater than himself, just as Diane appears powerless (in real life) to thwart Adam.
In Diane’s dreams, her rival Adam is cuckolded, thrown out of his own home, loses his wealth, lives in hiding from shadowy forces, and given a brow-beating by the Cowboy. Ultimately, he loses everything he values and has to give in to regain some of it. Adam has his eye on Betty/Diane, but he must settle for Camilla while Betty runs off to be in the arms of the “real Camilla”, Rita, completely shorn of her memories and therefore unburdened by anything but her passion and raw emotions. Rita is Camilla if she didn’t care about power and money.
Fantasy versus Reality – Mulholland Dr Explained
You might dismiss Mulholland Drive as a simple fantasy tale, but if you do, you’re missing the question: if fantasy dominates a person’s thoughts, then does it become reality? That’s the heart of Mulholland Drive, the question of what’s real and what’s imagined. But if the imagination completely dominates your thoughts, then isn’t that the real you.
Maybe people think they knew Diane, but I’m guessing the Diane behind closed doors, the one who fantasizes about nailing the audition and solving mysteries in a vague film noir setting alonside her lesbian lover, is more of the real person than the one seen by Adam and Camilla and friends at the dinner party. This is a person dominated by the fantastical side of her personality. Paradoxically, this is the real Diane–or at least what Diane wishes was real.
“There is no band.” Since this is a movie about Hollywood, that phrase applies equally well to the film industry. All that shadowy stuff about the producers and movie execs pushing around the director becomes a commentary on the movie making process. David Lynch has said the one thing a director can’t do is compromise. He turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi because he knew the studio interference would be too great. (God, imagine how bizarre “Return of the Jedi” would have been. It would have been great!)
The creative process of filmmaking is made to look as chaotic and many-faceted as the subject of “identity”. Once again, you have a swirling miasma of competing factors–some real (creative vision), some imaginary (nepotism)–which ultimately combine in the finished product: the silver screen production. Or did I get it backward? Is the back-room dealing and the forced compromises what’s real? Is the creative vision the illusion? It hardly matters. Despite the parallels, Adam’s story is a sideshow. All of it is nothing more than Diane’s warped fantasy of what Hollywood film production is like, right down to the eerie cowboys living in the hills and serving as Hollywood strongmen, or that wheelchair-bound puppet-master who’s thoughts and motivations must be divined by their corporate underlings. This borders on the realm of schizophrenia.
Mulholland Drive: The Death Scene
The way Mulholland Drive wraps up particularly interests me. This is where David Lynch’s tale becomes transcendent. We not only see Diane’s inner thoughts as she lives and suffers. We see her thoughts as she dies. Perhaps the first 2/3rds of Mulholland Drive are Diane’s dying thoughts. I like to think these are her post-mortem thoughts, what the spiritual side of Diane dwells on throughout eternity.
These are profoundly happy thoughts for a David Lynch movie, too. Think about what we see. We see Betty and her strangely happy aunt and uncle bathed in a white nimbus. They are happy, eternally happy. Presumably, these are the last thoughts of Diane, after she’s hounded to her death by the monster. We even see the tiny little aunt and uncle walking across the floor. When the lady in the balcony calls out, “Silencio”, Diane isn’t dwelling on the rejection or any other memory that drove her to comtemplate murder and suicide. Diane is dwelling on the fantasies of what might have been in a happier world, a better world.
So is this how David Lynch perceives the afterlife? Maybe our identity is nothing more than our memories. But if it is, do those memories have to be real? Or if our life is wasted away by pointless fantasies, do those suffice? Apparently, in the universe of Mulholland Drive, they do.
Mulholland Drive: A Personal Meaning
I tend to ruminate. I’m not using the term “ruminate” like I chose it out of a thesaurus and I really mean “think”. I’m talking about the psychological condition where you tend to dwell on certain moments or memories, often memories of an unpleasant nature. These can consume your thoughts to the exclusion of all else. Tiny incidents from years ago might suddenly start to be on the top of your brain for no good reason. In short, it’s a real pain in the ass.
Over the years, I’ve found ways to cope with rumination. I tend to avoid conflict. If I get around negative people too much, people who thrive on conflict and want to draw other people around them into arguments, I’m out of there. When you tend to dwell on controversies and emotional outbursts for days on end, you figure out it’s best to just stay out of those situations. Ultimately, it’s the only way to stay sane.
One way to avoid dwelling on bad experiences is escapism. If I can escape into movies and tv shows and sports and games and history books, that keeps me from worrying about the bad stuff. I tend to have a big imagination and, while I stopped having Diane-type fantasies when I was 13 or 14, I still tend to have whole worlds mapped out in my brain (and the dust bins of my computer). The fact is, I have a pretty detailed imaginary world that my mind tends to focus on year after year. I don’t mean to say I’m a recluse–I have friends, coworkers, family, and romance–but it’s often eclipsed by what I have going on in my own head. One psychological profile I found instructive described me as “dreamy”–and not like Dr. Dreamy.
All that’s to say I can see where Mulholland Drive is coming from. There’s more to the human being than just our experiences. There’s more to our memories than just what happened in the real world. The human psyche is also composed of our fantasies. It’s a small part of some of us. Fantasies are a big part of some of us. Sometimes those thoughts are dark, but sometimes they aren’t. But the idea that ones soul or spirit might live on after this life and our memories might be more than just our experiences, but also our crazy fantasies, seems like a happy thought to me. So Mulholland Drive makes perfect sense to me. I even find Mulholland has a happy ending…in it’s own twisted way. You just have to ignore that Diane’s fantasy world left her a broken woman, an attempted murderer, hallucinatory, and a corpse.
Mulholland Drive Explanation – No Meaning at All
I don’t know that David Lynch would agree with my interpretation. Lynch was quoted as saying, “Psychology destroys the mystery, this kind of magic quality. It can be reduced to certain neuroses or certain things, and since it is now named and defined, it’s lost its mystery and the potential for a vast, infinite experience.”
Still, it’s also said David Lynch takes delight in hearing people’s wacky theories about the meaning wrapped-up in his films. Remember, David Lynch began as an artist. Modern art is more about evoking an emotion than it is about giving answers. Plastic art is more concerned about implied meaning than film art is. Movies are about literal meaning–or at least, most movies are.
Once again, David Lynch has discussed this tendency in filmmakers and movie-goers: “In Hollywood, more often than not, they’re making more kind of traditional films, stories that are understood by people. And the entire story is understood. And they become worried if even for one small moment something happens that is not understood by everyone.”
So if you’re looking for one simple interpretation for Mulholland Dr or you’re searching for some concrete deep meaning, you may be looking in the wrong place. I’m guessing here, but I think David Lynch has his meaning of the film, but he wants you to come up with your meaning and me to come up with mine, and so on. I have my interpretation of Mulholland Drive, so what’s yours?